Two events of note happen this month. One is a big deal: Mitt Romney will become the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major American political party. The other is significant only to me: This month marks my 30th anniversary in Utah. But these two August, or august, moments are not totally unrelated. They are forever connected by what happened nearly 14 years ago.
On Nov. 24, 1998, on KTVX 4’s 10 p.m. news, I held up a piece of paper and said, “This is a letter Salt Lake Olympic folks probably didn’t want us to get.”
Not that I knew it at the time, but this was how the biggest story of my career started. The letter detailed how more than $10,000 had been paid by the Salt Lake Olympic Committee to cover the college tuition of the daughter of an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member. IOC members, of course, are the ones who decide which cities get to host Olympic Games.
What followed is, by now, a familiar tale. A huge worldwide scandal ensued. Several investigations were launched, eventually revealing how more than $1 million of Salt Lake Olympic money had been directed toward IOC members and their relatives. This money was disbursed through scholarships, presents and cash. Numerous international and local Olympic officials were eventually expelled or resigned. This included Frank Joklik, the head of Salt Lake’s Olympic Committee, who was replaced in February 1999 by Mitt Romney.
But there are some things from this time that I have never shared. They’ve been carefully stored away in a special Olympic “vault” in my brain. After all these years, though, it might be time to crack open the door and let a little air and light into the vault.
Not long after the scandal broke, one of my top sources told me there were concerns at the very highest levels of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about my Olympic reporting.
According to this source, the question being asked was, “Why couldn’t Vanocur have just kept the letter to himself?”
I’ve never confirmed that any leaders of the LDS Church actually said this. I am not sure I would have been able to. But the tip came from one of my best sources, and I have always believed it to be true.
I also suspected that if a church leader did ask this question, he wasn’t the only one in Utah to do so.
Let’s face it: There were probably a number of Utahns who weren’t happy with my Olympic reporting back then. This included one very angry viewer who sent an e-mail referring to me as a “shit face.”
This is why, for a long time, I haven’t talked about the story or the scandal. Nearly a decade and a half later, I still have some Olympic scar tissue. But with Romney’s nomination coinciding with my Utah anniversary, the timing seemed right to revisit this intersection of his life and mine.
Recently, I put together a special report for ABC4 News. It was about what it might mean to Mormons if Mitt Romney were elected president. Luckily, I knew exactly whom to interview.
KUED’s Ken Verdoia was a key contributor to the PBS documentary The Mormons. He is also an exceedingly clever man. One of Verdoia’s main themes, both in the documentary and in my interview, is how Mormons once were outsiders but now have a place in mainstream American life. Specifically, he speaks to how a member of a once-persecuted church now finds himself on the doorstep of the presidency.
In the interview, Verdoia told me, “It shows just how far not only has the church evolved in terms of its contribution to American society, but also how far this nation has evolved in putting away past prejudices.”
This struck me as a fascinating notion in and of itself. But it also seemed to eloquently sum up my own time in Utah.
After spending a summer during college working at Glacier National Park in Montana, I arrived in Utah in August 1982, very much in love with the West. However, because of my youth and naļveté, I also brought with me some of the stereotypical misconceptions of Mormons. These included a “gentile” fascination with the notions of polygamy, no caffeine and no premarital sex, and intently wondering who was/wasn’t abiding by LDS precepts. Predictably, in my early Utah struggles, I made every awkward mistake possible in my interactions with the church and its members.
But, after three decades here, I now know quite a bit more about Utah’s predominant religion. I have even learned to speak a little Mormon, though I remain far from fluent. Most importantly, though, I have also come to very much respect and admire the LDS faith and its people.
This is why I was so taken with Verdoia’s comment. When he talked about America evolving and putting away past prejudices, I thought about how I had evolved in my time in Utah. I also reflected on how I had been able to put away my own misunderstandings and misgivings. I, too, had once been an outsider here who finally found a place in mainstream Utah.
But, suddenly, my acceptance in Utah seemed threatened by the Olympic story. When I learned that the LDS Church leadership might be troubled by my breaking of the Olympic story, an odd thought occurred to me: I might not be able to stay in Utah. I remember how, after the story blew up, there was some talk that Salt Lake City might lose the 2002 Winter Games. Just imagine what it would have been like for me trying to live here if the Olympics had been forced to leave.
Well, ultimately, neither the games nor I moved. Still, I reasoned, it might be a good idea to try to reach some sort of post-scandal détente with the LDS Church.
Every few years, when I needed to find my footing with the church, I turned to some sage advice. It was given to me early on in my time here. One of my friends told me I couldn’t really understand Mormons without reading Harold Bloom.
I took this advice. I read Bloom when I was still a very green Utah reporter, and I returned to Bloom after the dust of the Olympic scandal had settled.
Bloom, a Yale professor, wrote a book called The American Religion. It forever changed how I viewed the LDS Church. In this revealing work, Bloom wrote about how the Mormons and their religion represent a “total system of belief and behavior.”
This made me realize I had made a mistake by initially looking at the LDS faith only as a religion. Bloom convinced me I needed to look not just at what Mormons believed spiritually, but also how they lived and behaved outside of church.
For me, this was the most telling thing that Bloom wrote: “… the Mormons, like the Jews before them, are a religion that became a people. That, I have come to understand, always was Joseph Smith’s pragmatic goal, for he had the genius to see that only by becoming a people could the Mormons survive.”
A people, like the Jews ...
These words gave me an inspired idea.
An LDS Olive Branch
Not that long after the Olympic story and scandal, I arranged a meeting with some key LDS Church officials. I asked if they would be interested in working with me on some stories. The pieces would be about the search for my grandparents who had been killed in the Holocaust. After mulling it over, the church ultimately signed off on the project and provided invaluable genealogical assistance. Eventually, with the information they found, I was able to trace my grandparents to Auschwitz.
This led to my reporting on several very personal and well-received stories. In fact, after one of these stories aired, I was stopped by an LDS member on Temple Square. Near tears, he told me how much these Holocaust stories meant to him and how nice it was for my people to reach out to his. Later, I would hear similar comments from other Mormons. These stories would also help lead to one of the most important moments in my Utah evolution.
March 2005 marked the 10th anniversary of the installation of Gordon B. Hinckley as the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To commemorate this, the church held a press event with President Hinckley and the other two members of the First Presidency, Thomas S. Monson and James E. Faust.
It was billed as a conversation between the First Presidency and the media. Taking part was one journalist from each of the major Salt Lake City TV stations. The church had been kind enough to invite me to be the representative from my station. This, I think, was due to our recent, positive collaboration.
I asked several questions during the conversation with the First Presidency, but one has lingered with me to this day.
I asked if America were ready to elect a Mormon president. Instead of answering it himself, President Hinckley turned to James E. Faust. I am not quite sure why, but the way these two church leaders looked at each other made me think they had talked about this topic before.
Elder Faust answered my question by making comparisons to Al Smith and John F. Kennedy, both Catholic presidential candidates. When Smith ran, Elder Faust noted, people said a Catholic couldn’t win. But eventually, Elder Faust continued, Kennedy did. The second counselor in the First Presidency concluded his answer by saying, yes, he expected “that day will come for a Mormon.”
For me, this conversation with the First Presidency was notable for other reasons, as well.
Near the end of the conversation, President Hinckley was asked by another journalist what impact he thought the 2002 Olympics had on the church.
I remember leaning forward to make sure I heard every word of President Hinckley’s answer. Here, according to my notes, was his response:
“Well, it was a great occasion, as you know. We had people come from everywhere. They enjoyed it immensely. Our people all worked together. We had former missionaries who spoke languages that the people were accustomed to. They could serve as guides and helpers. They didn’t impose their faith on anybody. But many, many people were very, very impressed with Salt Lake City and Utah as a result of that tremendous undertaking, and I believe that the knowledge which people gained of the church as they saw it in action here has helped us and blessed us since then. I hope so.”
Here was the leader of the LDS Church saying, on the record, that the 2002 Winter Games had helped the church.
I couldn’t help but compare that to what my source had told me years before: that my early reporting of the Olympic scandal had caused a stir at the highest levels of the LDS leadership. Now, President Hinckley’s answer seemed to suggest something very different, something that I have given a lot of thought to since.
Simply put: While the Olympic scandal may have given Utah a temporary black eye, it also brought Mitt Romney to Utah. This helped lead to a successful Winter Games and catapulted him into elected office.
When the taping of the conversation with the First Presidency ended, I enjoyed a brief chat with President Hinckley. His final words to me that day were said with a gracious, perhaps knowing smile.
“You ought to come by more often.”
I took President Hinckley’s positive comment about the Olympics as a personal validation of sorts. If this sounds somewhat self-aggrandizing, well, there’s a bit more to this story.
The truth is, when my source told me all those years ago that someone high up in the church had voiced concerns about my Olympic reporting, a name also was mentioned. According to my source, the concern came from President Hinckley himself.
This is why his Olympic remark meant so much to me. I felt I had been absolved.
You’re Welcome, Mitt
All these memories will travel with me when I head to Tampa, Fla., at the end of August to cover the Republican National Convention for ABC4 News. There, on Thursday, Aug. 30, Mitt Romney will deliver his convention speech accepting the Republican nomination for president. It will be a moment of triumph for a man, a religion and a state.
Romney has now been running for president for at least the past five years—some might suggest longer. He has personally spent tens of millions of dollars in this presidential quest, not to mention the time, effort and never-ending scrutiny. Finally, he and his family will be rewarded with his party’s nomination.
As for the LDS Church, that moment will represent a remarkable evolutionary turn. Once persecuted as outsiders, the Mormon people will, at long last, see one of their own reach very rarefied political air. Mitt Romney’s speech that night will also be highly significant to me, but in a quieter, less public way.
I expect my thoughts that night will be many and varied. I wouldn’t be surprised if I think about my 30 years in Utah, about the perils and promise of holding up letters on TV, and about how close Mitt Romney may be to living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Listening to his words that night, I may also silently yet strongly be reminded that journalism still matters.
But not only that. Lately, I have found myself thinking about families. My father, Sander Vanocur, covered Mitt Romney’s father, Gov. George Romney, when he ran for president in 1968. Forty four years later, that reporter’s son is covering that governor’s son.
In a state where both family and history matter a great deal, this almost half-century connection is another intriguing footnote to the story of Mitt, the Mormons and me.
Earlier this summer, I was attending a charity event when a person who appeared to be both slightly liberal and slightly inebriated approached me. He greeted me with this cheeky comment, “So, I suppose we have you to thank if Mitt Romney becomes president?” He proceeded to explain how my breaking the Olympic story had brought Romney to Utah and started him on the path to the White House.
It was not the first time someone had said this to me. Over the years, I have heard this lighthearted suggestion from Democrats, Republicans and even from someone fairly high up in the Romney campaign. It always makes me laugh. To think that someone of Romney’s intelligence, abilities, energy and ambition would need help from a hack like me never ceases to amuse.
Still … if Mitt Romney were elected president and somehow wanted to say thank you in the form of a plum political job, I suppose it would be unpatriotic of me not to accept.
I could, for example, be one of the Federal Communications Commissioners. There is plenty of mischief to be had there.
Or, on second thought, I would also grudgingly accept an appointment as ambassador to a warm island somewhere in the Pacific. Perhaps, I could be assigned to a small country with quality beaches, an absence of political strife and no Winter Olympic sports.
This, it seems to me, would be the perfect place to let some old scar tissue disappear in the warmth of the sun.
Chris Vanocur is the senior political reporter for ABC4 News. He also hosts the Sunday morning show On the Record.
In late November 1998, KTVX Channel 4 (now ABC4) reporter Chris Vanocur aired a story about a letter involving the daughter of an international Olympics official. In so doing, he inadvertently took the lid off of one of the biggest scandals in Olympics history.
The letter, written in 1996, was addressed to Sonia Essomba, a student at Washington, D.C.’s American University, in regard to tuition aid that Salt Lake Olympic officials had been sending her since August 1993. Vanocur’s story noted that Essomba’s father was an African surgeon and an influential member of the International Olympic Committee, the very committee that, in 1995, voted in favor of Salt Lake City hosting the 2002 Winter Games.
By 1996, the well was running dry and the senior vice president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, Dave Johnson, wanted to terminate the arrangement. “Under the current budget structure, it will be difficult to continue the scholarship program with you,” he wrote Essomba. “The enclosed check for $10,114.99 will have to be our last payment for tuition.”
A probe would eventually find that the bid committee had given Essomba a total of $108,350 from 1993-96. Salt Lake officials also spent more than $1 million on gifts for 24 of the 114 IOC members, providing trips to the Super Bowl, plastic surgery and free credit cards.
In reporting on the letter, Vanocur—the son of veteran TV and print journalist Sander Vanocur—sparked local and international attention that led to multiple investigations as well as resignations and firings of key Olympic officials on the local and international level. Meanwhile, other past and future Olympic city hosts came under scrutiny for the gifts they had used to curry favor and, in essence, buy votes.
1. How did this story get picked up nationally? What happened after the newscast aired?
I believe I got a call shortly afterwards from locally based NPR correspondent Howard Berkes. He was instrumental in the further development of this story. I have even heard us referred to as the Olympic Woodward and Bernstein.
2. A year after your story broke, Lee Benson, a columnist for the LDS Church-owned Deseret News, wrote there had been no scandal. Nothing deceitful had been done by local leaders because rules for bid cities were neither well defined nor enforced. He called the story one of exaggeration and one that turned the games into a political quagmire. He wrote: “The most scandalous part all along has been calling it a scandal.” If this were true, why then did the media and the public latch on to this story?
Not long after it broke, my dad told me this was a real jaw-dropping sort of story. I think that’s why people responded to it. It told them something they didn’t know.
3. Utah lobbyists and politicians enjoy a long tradition of mutual back-scratching. Not only that, but the Salt Lake business community was pulling out all the stops to be the favored Olympic host city. How could you predict that people would be outraged about gifts such as the scholarship bestowed on Essomba? What was your first clue?
I have always said I stumbled upon this story because I was a political reporter, not an Olympic one. Covering politics teaches you how to connect the dots.
4. At the end of your news story, you said you were going to ask for access to Salt Lake’s Olympic budgets. Were you successful in obtaining that information?
I did ask for those records the next day. While much of that information eventually came out, I would not take credit for that. There were a lot of good reporters working the story, as well as several investigations.
5. You’ve protected your source all these years. Are you ready to divulge, at long last, how you “obtained” the letter, or will it go to the grave with you?
If you are asking—again—if [City Weekly’s] Bill Frost gave me the Olympic letter, the answer remains the same. I will neither confirm nor deny it.
6. Did your Jewish heritage make it easier or more difficult to understand the Mormon culture? Was it helpful to be an outsider in order to see what was going on and have the fortitude to report on it?
Is it just me, or does anyone else find it amusing/ironic/interesting/slightly creepy that the City Weekly is asking me in-depth theological questions? Oy!
7. Kim Johnson, the wife of the letter writer, David Johnson, was a TV journalist who worked with you at KTVX. How did reporting this story affect your relationship with your colleague?
Kim and I had a good relationship. The fact the Olympic story may have changed that pains me to this day.
8. What was your first meeting with Mitt Romney like?
I believe Mitt Romney was aware of my involvement with the Olympic story. I recall he treated me—as he has done ever since—very graciously.
9. You no doubt were in hot demand after the story broke. How many job offers did you receive? Why did you stay in Utah?
All that glitters is not gold. I consider it a singular honor to be a Utah reporter.
10. Could a reporter get this story today?
One thing I have often wondered about is what effect today’s social media would have had on the story back then. I suspect I would have more followers on Twitter: @cvan4.